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NIST as Enforcer? House Committee Passes Bill to Expand Agency's Responsibilities

A NIST facility in Colorado.

A NIST facility in Colorado. // Jeff Zehnder/

Republicans on the House Science Committee forwarded legislation Wednesday that would vastly increase the operational responsibilities of the government’s cybersecurity standards agency and task that body with auditing other federal agencies’ cyber protections.

The NIST Cybersecurity Framework, Assessment and Auditing Act passed the committee, 19-14, over the objection of most Democrats who argued the bill was outside the expertise of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which views its role as advisory and does not customarily conduct audits.

The bill would direct NIST to complete an initial assessment of federal agencies’ cyber preparedness within six months and a full audit of their cyber protections within two years with priority given to the most at-risk agencies.

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The bill would also direct the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy to produce annual reports on the adoption of NIST’s 2014 Cybersecurity Framework, both in government and in the private sector, and direct NIST to create more extensive adoption measurements.

Those requirements jibe with some elements of a draft cybersecurity executive order that would mandate that agencies adopt the NIST framework. It would conflict, however, with NIST’s general policy that the framework should be an advisory document for agencies and companies rather than a strict set of rules.  

The NIST mandate is included in the most recent leaked draft of President Donald Trump’s executive order, which has not been formally introduced.

Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, acknowledged the bill would vastly expand NIST’s responsibilities during a conversation with reporters after the markup but said that expansion is necessary to ensure agencies’ cyber protections.

“There’s a temptation, I realize, with a lot of government agencies not to want additional responsibility,” he said. “In this case, they are the most qualified, they have the expertise and, in the end, I think that they will want to help prevent cyberattacks.”

The committee’s ranking member Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, however, argued the bill would transfer to NIST responsibilities that should belong to the Office of Management and Budget and the Homeland Security Department, which is primarily responsible for civilian government’s operational cybersecurity.

“NIST is not an auditing agency,” she said in an opening statement. “They have no such history, experience or capacity.”

Smith has spoken to possible Senate sponsors and to Republican leadership about the bill, he told reporters, but could not predict when it might reach the House floor or be introduced in the upper chamber.

He predicted the bill would “enjoy widespread member and public support” and “help stop cybersecurity attacks.”

Johnson also criticized the bill for not providing additional funding for the audits, noting that Federal Information Security Management Act audits can cost in the millions of dollars. She called the bill a “massive underfunded mandate levied on an agency that is already overtasked.”

FISMA audits are currently the major annual cyber reviews agencies’ undergo and are conducted by agency inspectors general. 

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